Under pressure to soften Brexit, PM May to meet Northern Irish ‘kingmakers’

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By Michael Holden and Kylie MacLellan

Prime Minister Theresa May will seek to strike a deal with a Northern Irish Protestant party to save her premiership on Tuesday as she comes under intense pressure to soften her approach to Brexit days before formal EU divorce talks.

May’s botched election gamble left her so diminished that supporters of closer ties with the European Union publicly demanded that she take a more consensual and business friendly approach to Brexit.

In an attempt to avoid a second election that could deepen the worst political turmoil in Britain since last June’s shock vote to leave the European Union, May apologised to her party’s lawmakers, who said they would leave her in power, for now.

“She said: ‘I’m the person who got us into this mess and I’m the one who is going to get us out of it’,” said one Conservative lawmaker who attended Monday’s meeting.

“She said she will serve us as long as we want her.”

To stay in government, May must strike a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a small eurosceptic Northern Irish party with 10 parliamentary seats. May will meet DUP leader Arlene Foster in London on Tuesday.

But a deal with the DUP would risk destabilising the political balance in Northern Ireland by increasing the influence of pro-British unionists who have struggled for years with Irish Catholic nationalists who want Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland.

While the DUP are deeply eurosceptic, they have balked at some of the practical implications of a so-call hard Brexit – including a potential loss of a “frictionless border” with the Republic of Ireland – and talks will touch on efforts to minimise the potential damage to Northern Ireland.

With formal EU divorce talks due next week, May heads to France on Tuesday to meet Emmanuel Macron, who last month swept to victory in the presidential election.

During the campaign, May cast herself as the only leader competent enough to navigate the tortuous Brexit negotiations that will shape the future of the United Kingdom and its $2.5 trillion economy.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, which saw its number of parliamentary seats and share of the vote increase, said there could be another election this year or early in 2018 after Thursday’s vote produced no clear winner.

SOFTER BREXIT?

May has promised to start the formal Brexit talks next week but opponents of a sharp break with the EU took her woes as a chance to push back against her strategy.

Before the election, May proposed a clean break from the EU, involving withdrawal from Europe’s single market, limits on immigration and a bespoke customs deal with the EU.

At the meeting with lawmakers on Monday, May recognised that a broader consensus needed to be built for Brexit and made clear she would listen to all wings of the party on the issue.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said the government should put economic growth at the heart of its Brexit strategy.

William Hague, a former leader of the Conservative Party, called for business groups and lawmakers from all parties to be brought in to agree a national position on Brexit.

May’s weakness means she must now listen to such views as she goes into Britain’s most complex negotiations since World War Two.

British officials held “talks about talks” with the European Union’s Brexit man in Brussels but the negotiations might be delayed by the political upheaval in London.

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Stelios Orphanides is a journalist at CyprusBusinessMail.com. To contact Stelios Orphanides: [email protected]